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Over the past year, Azov-affiliated groups have assaulted activists, forcibly shut down drug rehabilitation clinics and violently ejected Roma (or “Gypsy scum,” as they called them) from camps. But at an Azov-affiliated neo-Nazi concert in Kiev in December – organized by the Militant Zone label that has its brick-and-mortar store in Azov’s Cossack House – the neo-Nazi imagery, caricature or not, was on open display.But at Cossack House, this isn’t the image Azov wants to paint of itself. Haaretz found multiple pictures and videos online of fans giving Hitler salutes and shouting “Sieg Heil” at the concert, Many were also wearing clothes emblazoned with far-right imagery, including swastikas.“We have always been dissatisfied by the way Western media represent our movement,” Azov’s international secretary, Olena Semenyaka, tells Haaretz.
Hired muscle The Azov Battalion was formed in 2014 in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forceful annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine with Russian-led proxy forces. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a French fascist and Vichy collaborator, is there alongside Léon Degrelle, a Belgian Nazi collaborator who escaped the Allies and stayed active in neo-Nazi circles in Franco’s Spain. Matthew Feldman, director of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, tells Haaretz.In 2016, Azov formed a political party, the National Corps, headed by Azov fighter (and former head of the neo-Nazi Patriot of Ukraine organization) Andriy Biletsky, though the party barely registers in polls. A week after the Scandza Forum, Semenyaka is scheduled to speak alongside American psychologist Kevin Mac Donald, who has described anti-Semitism as a “rational” response to Judaism.And last year, the Azov movement made waves with the introduction of the National Militia – a street force that Semenyaka described as an “affiliated paramilitary structure” in a January Facebook post. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called him “the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic.” But these kinds of connections aren’t new for Azov.“Avakov resigning would solve 80 percent of the problem,” says Anya Hrytsenko, a Ukrainian researcher who studies the far right. Even though these friendships and connections are public knowledge, Semenyaka rejects accusations of neo-Nazism, and even argues that instances of Azov members – including herself – giving Hitler salutes and being pictured with neo-Nazi imagery aren’t what they seem.
Under Avakov’s protection, she says, Azov has been able to expand its operations and act with impunity. She says the use of what she calls “radical imagery” in the early stages of the 2014 war was merely “trolling,” hitting back at Russia in response to messages from Russian propaganda organs about all Ukrainians and their government being Nazis. The use of neo-Nazi or far-right imagery “vanished quite quickly, because when you have a chance to create history yourself, you cannot be just like a bad caricature,” she says.
The Azov movement insists it is not neo-Nazi, yet its members have been captured giving Hitler salutes and being virulently anti-Semitic.